Gary Woodland and Brooks Koepka go head-to-head in US Open duel

Enter gladiators with the muscle – Gary Woodland and Brooks Koepka go head-to-head in US Open duel

  • Gary Woodland found himself head-to-head with Brooks Koepka at the US Open
  • Woodland’s best major finish before this week was sixth at a PGA Championship
  • Justin Rose was also in contention for the title during the final round in California

Gary Woodland was born in Kansas, in the city of Topeka, which translates from the original Siouan as ‘a good place to dig potatoes’. 

It is a recommendation Woodland has long followed. ‘I come from Kansas – we’re steak and potato boys,’ he told Golf magazine. 

‘I grew up on meat. The look of fish or shellfish, the smell of it, the texture, I can’t stand any of it. So I’ve never had it and I don’t ever plan on doing so.’ 

Gary Woodland (pictured) found himself head-to-head with Brooks Koepka at the US Open

Leaving aside the issue of where exactly he’s been eating dinner on the California coast this last week – Monterey’s main drag isn’t called Fisherman’s Wharf for nothing – Woodland’s red-blooded, red meat presence reflects a growing trend in American golf. 

Old-fashioned Jocks. Guys who started on basketball scholarships or playing baseball and switched, in the college years, to their second sport. 

Like a Mister Muscle, Justin Rose stood sandwiched at Pebble Beach between two prime hunks of American beef: Woodland and the man who, more than anyone, has made this bovine blueprint work: Brooks Koepka.

The man chasing a fifth major and his third straight US Open is an influencer, the way Arnold Palmer was, the way Tiger Woods was. This new generation are the sons of Tiger in many ways, picking up on his obsession with physical fitness and strength and driving it to new levels. 

It used to be that the finesse, the softness, of golf was surrendered in the battle to bulk up. These days trainers are so specialised, their clients so aware, that bodies are tuned to perfection, in all the right areas.

Brooks Koepka kept the pressure on his fellow American during the final day at Pebble Beach

Johnny Miller once said he became musclebound and lost his touch after chopping wood to build strength. Koepke and Woodland can rip it one minute, then feather the ball with subtlety around the greens the next. 

And as it is bringing phenomenal results, this is becoming the route to follow.

Woodland’s background is basketball; Koepka’s baseball. His great uncle, Dick Groat, was a legendary short stop with Pittsburgh Pirates, the National League’s most valuable player in 1960 and an all-star selection on eight occasions; his father pitched for West Virginia Wesleyan college, and passed that enthusiasm to his son. 

Koepka junior only took up golf when his involvement in contact sports was curtailed for a summer after fracturing his nose in a car accident. 

‘If I could do it all again, I’d play baseball, 100 per cent,’ said the man currently regarded as the world’s greatest golfer. He spits like a baller, too, by the way.

Woodland got even closer to his alternate career path. He went to Washburn University in Kansas on a basketball scholarship but wasn’t good enough, and switched to golf at the University of Kansas a year later. 

KU, as it is known, is not the traditional grounding for professional golfers and it is no surprise that one of Woodland’s most prominent supporters is the university’s basketball coach Bill Self. 

‘I first saw Gary when he played against us for Washburn,’ Self recalls. ‘I tell him he didn’t even make our scouting report.’

Yet while America’s new breed may have entered golf on the rebound, they have brought with them the aesthetic of more aerobic and physically competitive sports.  

Justin Rose was also in contention for the title during the final round in California on Sunday 

Rose, attempting to become the oldest US Open winner this century, is a lean, fit, athlete, but his progress around these links before Sunday, a triumph of touch and feel, of single shot putting and astute bunker play, could not have been more different to his playing partner Woodland, and Koepka, in the chasing pack. 

Theirs is big boys golf, right down to the sizable half dollar coin from 1984 that Woodland uses to mark his ball on the green. A present from his mum, apparently, from the year he was born. 

Many contemporaries use a modest lucky penny. Equally, Woodland elicited mild surprise yesterday by arriving at the course carrying his own bag. It’s a Jock thing, a remnant of his basketball days. 

‘The first time I played with him, we were at Lawrence Country Club in Kansas,’ recalled coach Self. ‘I knew he was long and had heard all this stuff. I’d been told he had the most clubhead speed ever recorded. 

‘So we were playing number one, which is 360 yards, all carry, uphill. He drove the green and made a 15-foot putt for two. I thought, ‘Oh, my God’.’

Koepka’s power plays attract similar sentiments. Yet Pebble Beach is one of the shorter championship courses these days and, while he started on Sunday four shots off the lead, Koepka frequently demonstrates brain to match the brawn. 

It is not just about his mighty striking. Koepka’s touch, and his temperament, are what has made him the whole package. The strongest mind, as well as the strongest body. Even under the pressure of chasing, he has two expressions. 

The first suggests that all is in hand, the second that even if it isn’t, he’s not going to sweat it. It belies the enormous level of focus and effort that has got him to here. Koepka arrives for work at the course in what might be termed gymwear.

He targets his events – the majors, most obviously – with a precision more common in team sports. Everything is geared towards that one big win, that crucial six-point game. 

The rest takes cares of itself. This is what allows his on course style to appear unfussy – see ball, hit ball, as the Americans call it. This influences, because it is not hard to copy. The next generation won’t always be able to make it work like Koepka, but they can follow his map. 

Get fit, get strong, get focused, grip it and rip it. His challenge to Woodland on Sunday began with four birdies in the first five holes – and he was within a shot, going into the back nine, when it is said major championships truly begin.

And yet, there Rose was in the middle of all this muscle, refusing to be bullied out of it, casually juggling the ball on his club head as he waited on the tee to start the day. 

Koepka’s bogey on eight on Sunday was his first in 36 holes, Woodland’s brute force was bombing Pebble Beach’s sticking-plaster sized greens as he held steady at the top, yet Rose’s guile kept him in contention. 

After 54 holes he was not in the top 60 for driving accuracy, or hitting greens in regulation – but he was the best putter at the tournament by some distance. On Sunday Rose kept scrapping. 

No big American beefcake was going to kick sand in his face. They may be the future; but the present was up for grabs until the last.

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